When Aboitiz Shipping Company Stopped Acquiring Passenger Ships

Image by Gorio Belen

Aboitiz Shipping Company stopped acquiring passenger ships in 1974 after the purchase of the MV Yoshino Maru from Japan which became the MV Juan in their fleet. In fact, for the next 14 years they bought no ferries. With such freeze, along these years, the fleet of Aboitiz Shipping grayed and became rickety and they shed a lot of ports of calls and routes. Many younger ones now think Aboitiz Shipping has always been great in shipping. That wrong perception was probably driven by the remarkable SuperFerry series for which they were later known. But this is not what records and history indicate.

I have always wondered and speculated on the mix of reasons for this Aboitiz policy (if it was a policy) and move. 1974 were early Martial Law years when Marcos’ and the Romualdezes pressure on businessmen not allied with them was at its fiercest. I do not know if Aboitiz concentrated all their efforts on this phase in protecting their power businesses (both generation and distribution). Not many know this is the primary business of the Aboitizes as their name was associated more with shipping. However, I presume being American citizens, they have the Amcham (American Chamber of Commerce) and the US Ambassador behind their back.

I guess at the start there might not have been a conscious decision on their part. Instead, the “move” might have been driven by the need to absorb and integrate the Everett Steamship interest which they inherited in 1974 after the Laurel-Langley Agreement ending the “Parity” provisions in the Constitution kicked into effect. And this came soon after they integrated the Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC) into the Aboitiz Shipping Company in 1973. PSNC started as their inter-island partnership with Everett Steamship.

M/V Aboitiz Super Concarrier-I © Gorio Belen

Among the local shipping companies, it was Aboitiz Shipping which was the first to realize the future of container shipping and as early as 1975 they converted one of their ships for container duty. Maybe they got that from their association with Everett Steamship. Maybe not. And with such a half-baked ship, they already tried a Hongkong route with that. By 1978, Aboitiz Shipping was already in earnest in containerization and soon their Aboitiz Concarrier series started (the MV P. Aboitiz, MV Sipalay and MV Luis predated the series). With that they sailed express container services to Southern Mindanao and Cebu. Maybe this drive was also a reason why “they forgot to buy passenger ships”.

While Aboitiz Shipping was not acquiring passenger ships in the 1970’s, they were busy trying to prolong the lives of their ex-FS ships which was the backbone of their fleet. But let it be noted that at that time their three Hitachi-built and -engined ferries were still good. These were the MV Elcano, the MV Legazpi and the MV Cagayan de Oro which were originally owned and ordered by Everett Steamship and delivered brand-new in 1955. The three were used for express services to Mindanao and Cebu. And of course they have the MV Juan and the MV Aklan which were still good ships then for their Panay routes.

M/V Elcano Source: Aboitiz & Company, Inc. (1973). The Story of Aboitiz & Company, Inc. and the men behind it. Cebu City: Aboitiz.

In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, maybe Aboitiz Shipping thought they still have enough ferry holdings and so they can concentrate on the acquisition of container ships. After all there seems to have been a surplus of bottoms then when several shipping companies tied up passenger-cargo ships in 1980 and earlier (but maybe the true but unstated reason for that was the arrival of the container ships of Aboitiz Shipping, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines).

On the side of the competition, with the paradigm shift, the old passenger-cargo ships were beginning to reel from the onslaught of the container ships. At the same time, the smaller liner companies cannot afford the shift to this new type of carrying cargo. Well, some cannot even afford to replace their ex-FS ships and the sky-high interest rates and fast devaluation of the peso were the main reasons for that. And so, many of them were gone before the end of the 1980’s. Old and obsolete ships really cannot compete.

On Aboitiz Shipping’s side, starting in the middle of the 1980’s, the Hitachi-built ferries were beginning to age. They also lost two liners, the MV Juan to fire in 1981 and the MV Cagayan de Oro in 1983 (also to fire) and there were no replacements. The ex-FS ships, meanwhile, were already in its last legs as it already completed their fourth decade of service. The plates of the hull of the ship can be replaced, the beams can be buttressed but machinery really age and wear and tear simply takes its toll. Ships also die of old age like people.

In the second half of the 1980’s, the fleet of Aboitiz Shipping was already decrepit. The ex-FS ships were beginning to be retired and cannibalized for parts and their liners were already old. By this time, they have already lost a significant number of ports of call and routes. However, in container shipping they were probably the #1 as they have the most number of container ships (but William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were not far behind). From one angle, it looked like Aboitiz Shipping was more of a cargo company in 1988.

Aboitiz’ SuperFerry 1, first among the SuperFerry series of vessels. © Gorio Belen

In 1988, Aboitiz Shipping purchased its first ferry after 14 years, the former MV Katipunan of Escano Lines which became the MV Legaspi 1 in their fleet. In the next year, they acquired the MV Venus from Japan which started their SuperFerry series and this could be due to the Jebsens influence. Three more SuperFerries were added in the next six years. Then the Great Merger of 1996 came which created the WG&A shipping company. That ended the independent existence of Aboitiz Shipping but it preserved the SuperFerry line.


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